JThe debt ceiling drama appears to be coming to an end, as the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation that would raise the debt ceiling in accordance with a deal struck last weekend between President Joe Biden , and Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Speaker of the House. . Republicans fought to impose cuts in spending and/or eligibility for food stamps (Snap), Medicaid, child care and preschools, education and teaching grants superior.
By tying these and other provisions to lifting the debt ceiling, Republicans have attempted to use the threat of default on the public debt to force Democrats to accept them. The legislation, which is now going to the Senate where it is expected to pass, has not satisfied most of their desires.
The worst abuses Republicans have managed to include will be suffered by the hundreds of thousands of poor people who will likely lose access to food aid under the Snap program. Many are in poor health and will not be able to meet the working conditions Republicans have insisted on 50-54-year-olds; others will lose benefits due to additional bureaucracy.
There has also been damage done by the fictional narrative Republicans have managed to promote about the public debt “ticking time bomb.” There is no bomb and if there was, it would not spin.
The relevant measure of our debt burden is the amount we pay annually in net interest on debt, as a proportion of our national income (or, roughly speaking, GDP). That number was 1.9% for 2022. That’s not large, by comparison. We averaged about 3% in the 1990s, when we were then experiencing the longest economic expansion in the United States.
The constant repetition of the “threat” posed by our national debt has been a big win for Republicans, who always seek to cut spending on social needs and safety nets; and more strategically important, to cut spending that could help recovery from an economic downturn when Democrats are in power.
During the Great Recession (December 2007 to June 2009), Republicans fought against measures to spur an economic recovery, which were already too weak as proposed by Democrats. In October 2010, the unemployment rate was still 9.4%. In the election a month later, Republicans won 63 seats to occupy the House and six seats in the Senate.
The debt ceiling was used to threaten the Biden administration with default on the public debt if it did not agree to Republican demands, mostly for spending cuts. The cap itself does not affect new spending; it simply delays some of the spending that our government is already required by law to make. In a democracy, this type of extortion should not be allowed.
But republican power is not based on democracy; on the contrary, it has become very dependent on institutions and practices that most people, including experts, would consider undemocratic or undemocratic. Republicans benefit enormously from the fact that 80% of senators are elected by approximately 50% of voters. And if that’s not biased enough, there’s the filibuster, which effectively requires a majority of 60 votes to win almost any pro-democracy reform. This includes changes that are necessary even for the Senate as it is currently constituted: for example, the representation of Washington DC, which has more inhabitants than a few states. We are the only democracy in the world where the people who live in our nation’s capital do not have full voting rights.
Then there is voter suppression and gerrymandering, for state and federal elections. These two methods of influencing election results went hand in hand. Of course, swing states are prime targets: remember that Republican presidents who have governed for 12 of the past 22 years have come to power losing the popular vote.
When the Republicans win, they then use their power to stack the cards further in their favor. This includes packing the court system, where Republican judges push their agenda.
Their decades-long struggle to control the justice system culminated with a 6-3 majority in the United States Supreme Court, with five justices appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote.
The current Republican majority “now substitutes a rule of judges for the rule of law,” the dissenting justices wrote when that majority revoked abortion rights last year.
Dozens of senators have described the Supreme Court as ‘captured’ by ‘dark money’ from Republican donors, including ‘right-wing billionaires’, and it is currently facing loss of credibility as well as accusations of corruption.
If Republicans had gotten everything they included in their legislation to lift the debt ceiling, it would have reduced public debt by less than half of 1% next year.
This shows even more clearly that the fight against the debt ceiling was never really about debt reduction. It is part of a vicious circle in which political power is abused in order to consolidate an increasingly undemocratic system; then abused again. The debt ceiling is only part of this cycle and should not have been negotiated; it must be abolished.